Do you have a girlfriend?
Yes, NFL scouts ask that of potential draftees. Almost every time. And usually, there are two answers to this question: "Yes," and "No, I just broke up with one."
Scouts care about this because many NFL teams are frightened to death about taking a gay player. There have been gay professional football players before because of course there have been. We know about a handful of them who have revealed their sexuality after retirement. We will know about several more in time. But there never has been an active NFL player who admitted to being gay.
This was not at all what I was thinking when at Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., I asked a scouting director about Missouri defensive end/linebacker Michael Sam. I wanted to know if he thought the SEC's defensive player of the year had a chance to make the transition to linebacker — because there was a lot of work to do, particularly after seeing him struggle mightily in positional drills at linebacker — or find a home back at defensive end on the NFL level.
That's when the director said there were some "character things" he wanted to circle back on with Sam.
This was surprising. I had not heard a peep on that front, and I kept in touch with a lot of folks still at Missouri, my alma mater. It took less than a day to find out what everyone read about this weekend: Sam telling the world about his sexuality.
The NFL had known for a while. Its spies already had started to subtly let their coworkers know what apparently was not a well-kept secret in Columbia. Over the next few days, a few more well-placed sources, all of whom were in Mobile, said they all knew about Sam and his then secret.
Sam was well shielded at Missouri. The protective staff there knew about it and they were determined to let Sam reveal the information on his terms. Sam seldom spoke to the media this past season, under the auspice of "focusing on football." That certainly was his right to keep quiet and wait for the right time to announce it when he was ready. But perhaps Sam felt like everyone in the NFL already knew, and it was only a matter of time before news got out on someone else's terms.
Scouts will turn over every rock to find out every morsel of information they can on college players, and it doesn't stop with just asking about their girlfriends. They will pry the information from family members, teammates, high school acquaintances and anyone else who will spill for them. That information gets back to agents, family and teammates, and Sam certainly had to know that he didn't have a lot of time to get out in front of this story instead of hearing it reported by someone else he didn't tell.
This is an NFL culture where former Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland felt brave enough to ask Dez Bryant about his trouble mother and whether she was a prostitute in a pre-draft meeting. Some owners are obsessed as much with personal details as they are with a player's upside on the field.
The effect of Sam's coming out might not be felt for several years. Scouts, even as they meet with players at next week's scouting combine in Indianapolis, will ask personal questions as they continue the process of digging into their private lives. Seeing as how their bosses are writing six- and seven-figure checks for draft picks, the scouts live in a culture where they feel obligated to find out this information.
One NFL scout told me several years ago that the only reason they passed on a player was because he frequented strip clubs in college. The player they passed on turned out to become a multiple Pro Bowler. Now, maybe they were right to pass on the player because he didn't represent what the team valued in its representatives. But what's troublesome about the Sam story is how it was characterized as a "character issue" he felt the need to confirm on a player who, by all accounts, had the highest respect from his teammates and coaches.
"Character" might be a catch-all term for this sleuthing process scouts go through on all players. But it's clear that many scouts viewed the Sam information as a strike against him as they seek to stamp a draft grade on him, or perhaps remove him from their board altogether.
Will it remain that way? It's a fascinating study, and one we won't get the answer to for a while. Maybe Sam will be viewed in retrospect as a hero for all gay players who felt the need to remain private about their sexuality, but he also can effect more change with the way scouts consider the details of a young man's private life.
Let's hope that changes for the better with this brave announcement.
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